Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 21
Roger Briggs: A legacy of clean water
BY KATHY JOHNSTON
Forcing polluters to pay up and clean up has been just part of a day’s work for water watchdog Roger Briggs, who retired Aug. 1 after nearly 40 years with the Central Coast Water Quality Control Board.
And he’s been a watchdog with sharp teeth, tirelessly enforcing state and federal clean water laws.
It was Briggs who signed an order in the ’90s requiring oil giant Unocal to pay a $43 million settlement and carry out extensive cleanup of an Exxon Valdez-size underground oil leak at the Guadalupe Dunes. That was after he served a search warrant at the Unocal field office to look into its files for evidence of the pollution.
Briggs also signed an order requiring the oil company to pay $18 million and remove oil pollution under Avila Beach. He took on Pacific Gas & Electric for damaging the coastal environment at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Most recently, he led the charge to require farmers to begin reducing groundwater pollution from excess nitrogen fertilizer.
Under his leadership, the water board has used funds paid by polluters to buy lands for conservation, including Paradise Beach near Point Sal.
“We are one of the very few entities that are really the guardians of the environment,” he told members of the water board at their July meeting. A long resolution was read out, commending Briggs as an “extraordinary person” with an “extraordinary career,” and praising his courage and dedication.
His first day of work as an engineer at the water board was back in 1975. Over the years, he worked his way up through the ranks before taking the helm as executive officer. Under his leadership, according to assistant executive officer Michael Thomas, the staff saw “a tectonic shift,” refocusing its efforts on achieving tangible results for clean water in the 300-mile-long Central Coast region.
In his San Luis Obispo office, with cardboard cartons on the floor and a packing tape dispenser on his desk, Briggs said, “It’s unusual these days for people to stick with a job. But the work is kind of a calling for me. I have passion for what we do as far as environmental protection, helping the creeks and watersheds.”
He said he’s proud to have implemented a comprehensive, region-wide water-quality monitoring program—kickstarted by $1 million from the Guadalupe Dunes settlement fund—that helps spotlight pollution problems in surface and groundwater.
A nine-month leadership education program for the water board staff has allowed more focus on setting priorities and achieving tangible results for the region’s water resources, he said, praising the staff’s passion and competence.
The chair of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, attorney Jeffrey Young of Santa Barbara, said in an interview that Briggs is a good listener who is levelheaded and thoughtful.
“He understands the technical side and the social side of the issues. He’s always offered sound advice. A lot of our issues take years to resolve, and to have that institutional memory is something we’ve relied on,” Young added.
Briggs’ recent efforts have focused on updating the region’s basin plan, which spells out enforcement and protection methods for the many uses of water. He’s been pushing for a water board role in land use decisions, as a way to create healthy watersheds.
As for his retirement plans, Briggs said, “I sail, I play racquetball, I play music, ride a bike, ride horses—and I never have enough time while I’m working!”
Board members have been interviewing potential successors for the executive officer position, Young said, adding, “in the meantime, we have a very qualified, competent staff, including [assistant executive officer] Michael Thomas.”
As Briggs faced his last day at work, he said, “We take enforcement action on big industry or mom-and-pop businesses. Just because someone is big and has lots of attorneys—we’ve gone to court many times—what we have to do is what’s right for the environment.”
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